“I would describe it as a ‘subdued joy,’” J.J. Watt said. It was Wednesday afternoon, and the NFL superstar and his Houston Texans teammates were on a bus, finally heading back home.
No one on the bus knew exactly what to expect. The Texans hadn’t been to Houston since the brutal and historic storm began. They’d moved as a team from New Orleans to Dallas to keep practicing, but had yet to see their flood-ravaged city.
“It’s a bunch of guys who are very happy to be going home, and see their families and wives and kids,” Watt said. “But it’s difficult…some guys don’t know what they’re going to find when they get to their house. Some guys won’t be able to go to their houses. And we know we’re going back to a city that needs our help.”
Watt had spent most of the bus ride on his phone, consumed with an impromptu internet fundraiser he’d started only a few days prior, as Harvey was pounding Houston and southeastern Texas.
Watt’s fundraiser (located at youcaring.com/JJWatt) has become a social media phenomenon. His initial goal had been to raise $200,000, with Watt kicking in $100,000 himself to get things started.
But then it grew. Quickly. Exponentially. Beyond anything that Watt anticipated. Shortly after we spoke, Watt would confirm on Twitter that his fundraiser to aid flood victims in Houston and its surrounding areas had passed $7 million.
Late Wednesday, a $1 million check from
would arrive via Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show, pushing the total past $8.5 million.
By mid-morning Thursday, it rocketed past $10 million.
“It’s crazy,” Watt said. “It’s an unbelievable testament to the good of people. But now it’s a big task, trying to make sure this money goes directly to the people.”
Watt’s fundraiser is a low-key production. In between Texans practices, he’s been handling a lot of the logistics personally, with help from his mother, Connie. Its appeals have simply been Watt posting videos of himself updating the fundraising efforts and goals.
“Every little thing helps,” Watt said in a video posted early Wednesday. “Just because the storm is receding doesn’t mean we can stop raising money.”
Immediate purchases have included food, water, clothing, generators and cleaning supplies for people impacted by the storm. Watt said the first trucks full of supplies were about to leave for Houston from his home state of Wisconsin—his high school in Pewaukee, Wis. has been gathering donations—with another group of trucks departing from Utah. (The storm had made it harder to locate trucks closer to Houston, Watt said.)
More than 70,000 individual donations have come in, Watt told me. They range from modest contributions of a few dollars to Wal-Mart’s $1 million to another $1 million from Amy Adams Strunk, the owner of the Tennessee Titans, one of Houston’s rivals in the AFC South. Other Texans players and Houston athletes, like new NBA Rockets point guard Chris Paul, have chipped in as well.
It doesn’t hurt that Watt, 28, is one of the most recognizable and liked players in football. The former Wisconsin Badger is a three-time winner of the NFL’s Defensive Most Valuable Player award, and his blond crewcut and hulking upper body give him the appearance of a real-life superhero. Watt’s Texans jersey is one of the top sellers in the game.
The Texans cancelled their final preseason contest, set for Thursday with the Cowboys, in order to return home. But the team’s Sep. 10 opener at home versus Jacksonville is fast approaching, and practices and preparations continued this week at the Dallas facility in Frisco, Texas, as the staggering news about deaths and devastation continued to arrive.
“The crazy thing is we’re still doing our day jobs,” Watt said. “We’re still going to practice; we’re still having meetings. We lock in, we focus on our jobs, but the second we’re out of meetings I go to straight to my phone and check on the fundraiser, check on people running logistics on the trucks, and we’re always watching the news.”
It’s been difficult for the Texans players to watch the flood reports from afar, Watt has said this week. Houston is a “massive city with a small town feel,” he told me. He joked that even though he’d gotten booed on draft night, the city had quickly welcomed him and his family.
“They treated me as one of their own,” he said.
Now he is one of many residents urgently trying to give back. Watt said this weekend that he and his teammates would be helping to unload trucks and distribute supplies to those who needed them.
Football was coming, and football is always big in Texas. But one of the game’s best knew it could hold off for bit.
“This is so much bigger than football,” J.J. Watt said.
Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com